Here’s a dazzling thought: Pluto’s blue skies may be cloudy. Earlier this year, we heard a rumour that scientists were considering the possibility of clouds on Pluto. According to NASA, that rumour is very much alive, and a hot topic of discussion at a planetary science conference this week.
Pluto’s hazy, layered atmosphere is mostly cloud-free, but as noted by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a handful of mysteriously bright, low-lying features are suggestive of isolated condensation clouds. Those features are best seen in the upper rightmost images above, captured by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera during the New Horizons flyby.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the best data on Pluto’s alleged clouds we’ve got, and it isn’t firm enough for scientists to be 100 per cent sure. But the idea is not so outlandish. After all, the dwarf planet’s surface is smothered in a mix of volatile ices, including nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, which can easily escape to the atmosphere and, under the right conditions, re-condense.
If there are clouds on Pluto, that’s a rather exciting find. After all, clouds mean weather, and weather helps to shape and sculpt planetary surfaces, on Earth and elsewhere. “It would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” Stern said in statement.
More broadly, clouds are yet another indication that Pluto is not the cold dead rock we took it for, but a dynamic little world as deserving of our respect as any bonafide planet. In fact, between meteorology, blue skies, hints of sun beams and fog, this alien atmosphere is starting to feel just like home. [NASA]